It’s no wonder many people are wary of behavioral genetics. The field, which examines how the DNA we’re born with affects our behaviors, has been hijacked by eugenicists, white supremacists, and run-of-the-mill bigots as a way to justify inequality for minorities, women, poor people, and other disadvantaged groups for over a century.
But anyone interested in egalitarian goals should not shy away from the field, argues psychologist Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden. Instead, they should embrace it as a tool to inform policies that promote equality.
What is behavioral genetics?
Every person is born with a set of genes inherited from their biological parents. These genes carry information that shapes each person’s characteristics, such as physical appearance, personality, and medical conditions.
Humans — regardless of race or background — are over 99% genetically identical. But that remaining less than 1% accounts for meaningful differences between people. As Harden told Big Think:
“Many of the psychological, behavioral, physical differences between us are related to that tiny fraction of our genome that differs between us…Your risk for schizophrenia, your risk for depression, how far you go in school.”
Behavioral genetics is the study of these differences and how they predict life outcomes.
Importantly, however, your genes alone do not determine life outcomes. Even the strongest relationships between genes and psychology—like those for intelligence and schizophrenia—account for only around 50% or less of variance.
Instead, our genes constantly interact with our environment. Epigenetic research even finds that our genes can essentially be turned on or off by myriad factors, including malnutrition, environmental pollutants, and psychological stress. And while genes create a framework that influences our physiology and psychology, the environment provides opportunities to learn, adjust, and shape behaviors.
Genetics research has been misunderstood and misused
There’s a long history of people misusing genetics research to justify social inequalities.
Relying on conceptions of “hard heredity” — which (incorrectly) assumes that genes determine outcomes regardless of environmental factors — some have used genetic research to argue that social inequality is due to immutable genetic differences. And because poverty and life outcomes are hardwired in each person’s genes, the logic goes, social policies are futile.
Genetic research has even been used to justify eugenics: the belief that genetics indicate a natural human hierarchy that determines one’s social value and standing. Eugenicists have advocated for sterilizing or otherwise attempting to eradicate individuals or entire cultural groups deemed genetically inferior or “unfit” due to their genes.
Behavioral genetics can be a tool for positive change
In response to this historic misuse, many people and organizations with egalitarian values have decided to ignore, degrade, or ban funding for research on genetic and biological differences.
Dr. Harden takes the opposite stance. Despite — or perhaps because of — this historic misuse, she argues that people interested in equality cannot ignore genetic differences. To do so would allow the misinterpretation and abuse of genetic research to go unchallenged.
Subscribe for a weekly email with ideas that inspire a life well-lived.
Instead, genetics should be used as a tool for positive change and increasing equality.
Genetics is luck, not value. First, Harden highlights, genetics is not a measure of human value, but rather represents simply luck-based reasons why people differ. Any two parents can produce children with any of the more than 70 trillion possible genetic combinations. No person has control over the DNA they are born with.
Moreover, this genetic lottery influences inequalities ranging from health to educational attainment. So, according to Harden, people who care about fairness should care about genes.
“If we care about inequality that is tied to accidents of people’s birth, the kind of stroke of luck over which they have no control, then we should care about genetic inequality,” Harden told Big Think. “Because it is one of the main sources of inequality in this country.”
Genetics can guide the building of better environments. Moreover, identifying genetic differences helps ensure that meaningful differences are considered and can be used to ensure that everyone can maximize their life success.
Remember, genes alone do not determine life outcomes, but instead interact with the environment; and the environment can be altered. Harden provides the example of vision. Poor vision is largely caused by genes, but as a society we do not devalue those with poor eyesight or deny them meaningful life pursuits. Instead, scientists developed eyeglasses, policy makers and businesses made them readily available, and our myopic friends have become some of the most successful people in the world.
Conversely, lucky genes — say, for extreme athleticism or outstanding math ability — are only beneficial in environments that value them and allow them to flourish, such as areas with sports programs or those where everyone has access to quality education.
In short, acknowledging genetic differences can help society create more individualized, supportive environments.
“I think a big part of the of power of genetics is as a tool to help us understand the environment,” Harden told Big Think. “What are the social environments, the school contexts, the parenting environments that can turn on or turn off genetic risk?”
Policies and environments should be tailored to ensure that everyone — regardless of their genes — is given the opportunity to do well and fully participate in society. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one successful example of this. The ADA acknowledges that some people have physical disabilities, and in turn creates environments (with elevators, braille, etc.) that everyone can use regardless of their physical differences.
The anti-eugenics framework for more equality
Genome blindness — that is, ignoring genetic variation — ignores meaningful differences between people and how they experience life. This in turn can exacerbate inequalities.
As such, people who care about equality should be anti-eugenics, not anti-genetics. To improve equality, Harden argues they should support research on how to improve and tailor school, home, and community environments. They should advocate for social policies that support everyone to maximize their potential.
By integrating science and values, we can create a more equal world.
“Science doesn’t neatly fit into ideology,” Harden told Big Think. “What we need to do is to think about what our values are, what the science says, and then take both of those things seriously when crafting policies.”